An illegal collection of floating zoos on the Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap was raided and shut down by environmental officials after tourists and others complained that zoo animals—including rare leopard cats—were kept in appalling conditions and appeared to be malnourished.
The raid led to the confiscation of 97 animals, including cats, snakes, turtles, rare cranes, macaques and pileated gibbons that were made to endure life in small cages for public viewing, a violation of the recently established forestry law, since the zoos were not licensed.
The raid was led by the Wilderness Protection Mobile Unit, the only environmental authority in Cambodia with the power to confiscate animals from smugglers, illegal zookeepers and poachers.
“Local businessmen are setting up floating zoos because they think tourists want to see captive wildlife,” said Sun Hean, the assistant to the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. “In fact we’ve had many complaints from Westerners but were unable to do anything about it until WildAid helped us set up the Wilderness Protection Mobile Unit,” he said, according to a statement issued Saturday by the NGO WildAid.
Some of the animals captured at the zoos have been released into the wild; others are staying at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center and may be released in coming months.
Snakes and turtles have been released into the wild. A few of the animals are unlikely to be released, however, explained Matt Hunt, animal husbandry specialist for WildAid. Leopard cats and gibbons tend to become domesticated in zoos and may not be capable of surviving on their own in the wild, he said.
Birds of prey, especially, make poor candidates for release because many of the birds taken from the zoos were likely stolen from their nests at a young age and never learned to hunt properly. Instead, some of the animals, including 14 spot-billed pelicans and 11 lesser adjutants, have been set free within the Phnom Tamao center and are fed regularly. If they want to fly away they will, but most will stay near a reliable source of food, Hunt said.
The raid at Siem Reap earlier this month took 14 hours and required three boats, four trucks and transportation crates for the animals, according to WildAid. Some 19 different species were confiscated.
The Wilderness Protection Mobile Unit is a joint venture between the Department of Forestry and Wildlife and WildAid. The mobile unit frequently raids restaurants that serve wild animals protected under the forestry law.
WildAid Director Suwanna Gauntlet said in a statement that in less than two years WildAid and the mobile unit have cut the consumption of wild animals by 90 percent in Phnom Penh restaurants.
In another recent raid, government officials confiscated from a known smuggler’s house in Poipet commune, Banteay Meanchey province, 27 poisonous snakes and five scaly anteaters that were destined for Thailand, said Nuth Ly, Ou’chrou district police.
The smuggler was not at home when police raided his house, police said. The animals were handed over to wildlife officials for release into the Trapaing Thmar reservoir in Bantey Meanchey province.
The officials acknowledged that poaching for wildlife remained a problem in the region despite their actions.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)